I first became aware of Heaven on Earth, Sadakat Kadri's affectionate account of sharia law, a couple of weeks ago, when it received a glowing review in the New York Times. A cursory check of other newspaper websites quickly turned up several other notices, most of them equally enthusiastic. And a look at Amazon showed, depressingly, that Kadri's book is a top seller. The British edition, published by Bodley Head, a division of Random House, is subtitled A Journey through Shari'a Law; the American edition, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, carries a longer, more evocative subtitle: A Journey Through Shari'a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World.
That atmosphere-heavy American subtitle captures something important that should be mentioned at the outset. It is this: that we are living in a time when writers like Karen Armstrong, while pretending to tell us everything we need to know about Islam, have in fact perfected the art of prettifying it beyond recognition. They routinely either soft-pedal or thoroughly avoid the more chilling facts about the religion, or write about them in a dispassionate, distanced prose that is deliberately designed not to capture the horror lurking behind the words. They glide past acts of violence committed by Muslims while paying close, clinical attention to acts of violence directed against Muslims. They demonize Islam's critics while employing charming, humanizing details to make even the most brutal Islamic figures sympathetic. And they pour out reams of pseudo-poetic language about exotic sights, tastes, and smells, as if trying to cover the stench of a murder victim's corpse with a couple of gallons of perfume.
Case in point: a three-part 2006 series of New York Times articles about an imam in Brooklyn for which reporter Andrea Elliott won a Pulitzer Prize. It opened this way: “The imam begins his trek before dawn, his long robe billowing like a ghost through empty streets. In this dark, quiet hour, his thoughts sometimes drift back to the Egyptian farming village where he was born.” Readers who smelled a rat were obliged to read column after column of numbingly adorable personal details about the imam before getting to the brief tidbits about his actual beliefs, which, although couched in the most euphemistic language imaginable, gave away the fact that he was not the genial, open-minded bridge-builder Elliott wanted us to think he was, but an uncompromising adherent of hard-line sharia law.
Kadri has clearly been an attentive student of the Karen Armstrong/Andrea Elliott school of prose. “I reached the shrine long after dusk,” he tells us on his first page, “and its neem tree glades were pulsating to the drums and accordions of an ululating troupe of musicians.”
Who is Kadri? I have never heard of him before. (But he's heard of me: I was surprised to discover a half-page or so of mendacious invective directed at me toward the end of his book.) The dust jacket tells us that he is a half-Finnish, half-Pakistani Londoner who studied at Cambridge and Harvard Law and is “qualified as a barrister and New York attorney.” He is also a believing Muslim who presents the tale of Allah's revelations to Muhammed as if it were historical fact. In his prologue, he provides the assurance (directed, presumably, at any violence-prone coreligionists of his who might happen to be on the lookout for heterodoxy) that he “does not intend at any point to challenge the sacred stature of the Prophet Muhammad, the self-evident appeal of Islam, or the almightiness of God.”
Well, he certainly keeps that promise. Apropos of Allah's revelations, Kadri writes that “the channel of communication that had opened between Muhammed and God would transform the world. Thousands of lines of divine wisdom would reach him from the heavens over the next two decades, transmitted by a disembodied voice or heralded by a bell, and as he fell entranced and moved his lips to memorize God's words, he would see far beyond the visible world, far into heaven and deep into hell.” As Kadri sums it up: Muhammed “had more access to eternal wisdom than any other human being who had lived.” Anyone who wrote like this about, say, Moses or Jesus and took his manuscript to the London branch of Random House or to Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York would be instructed condescendingly to try an evangelical publisher. But Islam is, needless to say, different.
Kadri makes it clear that Muhammed was not just a recipient of divine revelation; he was also, in one way after another, the ideal man: “No one has ever denied that Muhammed was tall, dark-eyed, handsome, fragrant, lustrous, well-mannered, softly spoken, modest, firm of handshake and purposeful of stride,” writes Kadri. For him, it's a given that Muhammed was a paragon of human virtue, the ultimate ethical and spiritual teacher, God's final prophet. “[N]o one would ever doubt Muhammed's eloquence,” Kadri asserts. He speaks unblushingly of Muhammed's “solid moral arguments.” He even dares to credit Muhammed with teaching sexual equality – never mind that the Koran teaches comprehensive sexual inequality. (With lawyerly deftness, Kadri doesn't speak of “sexual equality” but instead uses the term “morally equal,” which makes less sense the longer you look at it.)
One question about Muhammed that Kadri does address – kind of – is the one about his marriage to nine-year-old Aisha. While accepting every detail of Muhammed's divine revelations as historical fact, Kadri refuses to accept that Aisha was nine when the prophet married her, and suggests, without a hint of supporting evidence or argument, that historians “might have been exaggerating her youth to exclude any doubt about her virginity.”
Unsurprisingly, Kadri evinces as much reverence for the Koran as he does for the Prophet. “Not for nothing,” he gushes, “is its recital said to have stopped jinns in their tracks and melted the hardest of pagan hearts.” The Koran is without blemish, he informs us, although “its perfection was not universally appreciated when it first appeared.” But is he interested in close reading? Hardly. Want a frank discussion of all those passages that deliciously imagine an eternity of hellfire for infidels? Don't look for them here (although Kadri does go out of his way to tell us that two Koran verses “promise a reward in the afterlife to good Jews and Christians”).
No, when writing about the Koran, Kadri knows it's best to keep it as vague as possible, pouring out the usual words of hyberbolic praise (sublime, mystery, magnificence, etc.). And, of course, to quote from it out of context. Kadri, like many others before him, cites – not once but twice – the line from the Koran to the effect that killing one person is tantamount to killing “all humanity.” In neither case does he provide the context. The actual verse (5:32) reads as follows: “We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” First, the verse clearly applies to Jews, not Muslims; and second, even if you do interpret it as also applying to Muslims, it provides a loophole (you can kill people for “spreading mischief”) that's as wide as a barn door. The fact that propagandists for Islam have made a habit of quoting this line out of context to demonstrate Islam's purported peacefulness only underscores the fact that in the whole of the Koran there's not really anything particularly peaceable.
Kadri keeps his rose-colored glasses on when he moves beyond Muhammed and the Koran to the history of Islam and the codification and enforcement of Islamic law. “[T]here is little doubt about the relatively benign nature of Muslim rule,” he blithely declares. Instead of serving up an honest account of the less-than-benign means by which Muhammed and his successors spread their religion, Kadri finds obscure straw men to knock down for their foolish and unjustified charges about the Islamic conquests – for example, an early medieval bishop who blamed Muslims for burning down the library at Alexandria (which, needless to say, was destroyed centuries before Muhammed). To be sure, while Kadri pretty much glides past the Muslim conquests with his eyes closed, he provides graphic close-ups of the depredations of the Crusaders and of Genghis Khan. Repeatedly, we see Muslims depicted as victims of bloodthirsty bullies – rarely as bloodthirsty bullies themselves. For good measure, Kadri argues that the laws of the British Empire were more backward than Islamic law, and describes both the Crusades and the founding of Israel – but, again, not the Muslim conquests – as “land grab[s].”
This book's subtitle describes it a “journey” rather than an “argument,” but Kadri has a point to make – namely, that while the text of the Koran is flawless and immutable, its interpretation by Islamic scholars, and its application by Islamic judges, have varied from place to place and era to era. He distinguishes between sharia, which is an eternal element of Muhammed's revelation, and fiqh, which is the practical attempt to codify and apply God's law on earth. He wants us to understand that whenever and wherever Islam has seemed to be, say, merciless and unjust, it has never been Islam itself that is the problem – if, indeed, there really is a problem – but, rather, the failure of its human interpreters to reflect Allah's perfection. Kadri further argues that many injustices in the Muslim world are the work not of sincerely pious Muslims but of non-believers who are using Islam as a justification for their own savagery. He also argues that cruel governments “that purport today to be eternally Islamic are creatures of modernity.” (No, they're modern-day reactions to modernity by people devoted to barbaric seventh-century laws.) “It was not God,” Kadri writes, “who decided to treat rape victims as capital offenders and pregnancies as confessions: it was men.” Kadri's determination to shield Islam from blame for anything at all is palpable.
Toward the end of his book, Kadri recounts his journeys in the Muslim world, where he explores – and systematically whitewashes the reality of – Islamic law in practice. Stunningly, he holds up Iran as a case of “Islamic tolerance,” citing the presence in that country of Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. (He doesn't mention that the numbers of all these groups in Iran have dwindled steadily since the Islamic revolution.) And he speaks of “Pakistan's supposed Islamisation,” denying flat-out that it has been sinking for a long time into a swamp of Koranic backwardness. (I would encourage any reader who is tempted to buy Kadri's picture of Pakistan to read a few articles by Rooshanie Ejaz at rights.no.) Kadri is a perfect illustration of the fact that the mischief of Islam cannot be cured simply by Western education; on the contrary, such education, in cases such as his, only provides the true Islamic believer with a position from which to spread his slick misinformation and a refined-sounding language in which to do it effectively.
If lawyer Kadri is so enamored of Islam, one gathers, at least one reason is that Islam's all about law. He writes with a devoted attorney's ardor about the arcane, nuanced interpretive logic that led this or that Islamic jurist to issue a certain ruling: to him, it can seem, the fact that the ruling might have led to the torture and execution of people who hadn't really done anything you or I would consider wrong is almost beside the point, sub specie aeternitas and all that. He is, to put it another way, altogether too inclined to concern himself with sharia as a phenomenon of the classroom and the courtroom, the mosque and the library, and to be less concerned than one might expect with its horrific effects over the centuries in hundreds of millions of Muslim public squares and Muslim homes.
Who is buying this book? I picture it being snapped up by bien pensant types in London and New York bookstores – the contemporary equivalents of Leonard Bernstein and his “radical chic” crowd. Other writers offer the uneasy, multiculturalism-challenging truth about Islam and sharia; Kadri gives these people exactly what they want. He has certainly given the reviewers for many of the “best” papers what they want. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner calls Heaven and Earth “thorough and admirable...an urgent appeal for mutual understanding.” In the Guardian, Aatish Taseer judges it “first-rate (though he acknowledges, at least, that Kadri's“people...can sometimes feel like symbols, as if they are standing in for grander, more abstract theories about law and Islamic tradition”). And in the Spectator, of all places, James Mather hails the book for “offer[ing]the basis of a more informed debate” about sharia. Alas, Heaven and Earth isn't the basis for an informed debate about anything – it's yet more pretty, perfumed propaganda of the Karen Armstrong variety, and the generous welcome it's received in the old media provides a dispiriting reminder of the Western cultural elite's enduring determination not to encourage informed, guileless debate on these matters.
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